Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens + a winter evening’s frolic in the city

Philadelphia is underrated. It’s so close to the cultural icon that is NYC and the political powerhouse of Washington DC, so it’s easy to see how it might get lost in the shuffle. Famous for cheesesteak sandwiches and being the “birthplace of America,” the city is full of art, culture, and darn good food. Reunited with my squad of two from Hamburg, Germany, I took my husband to Philly for the first time in his life. I hadn’t been there since I was a child, so it was a discovery trip for me as well.

First stop: Magic Gardens, 1020 South St, Philadelphia: Wednesday—Monday 11am to 6pm, general admission $10

Created (somewhat illegally at first) by Philly’s most famous mosaic artist Isaiah Zagar, the gardens are a huge private art space. What has once an old building and an empty lot are now a museum, studio, and subterranean collection of… junk. But artistically arranged junk. E92FD435-DDD8-4BE5-B7D5-D2BFE2ACE157

Anything and everything can be a part of the artwork— smashed, dismantled, reassembled and created into something new. Catch a tour with one of Isaiah’s apprentices to get a clearer picture of the mosaic making process and the history of the garden. (Some slightly racist comments from one of the apprentices as well… but we are in America, so it’s not that surprising.)

 

Isaiah’s other mosaics are scattered throughout the city, especially the south side district. Magic Gardens is a more personal, uncensored, collage of his work. Kids under five are admitted for free, but may have questions about all the body parts featured in this private collection.

On to: city walking

Philadelphia is a very walkable city. About the size of Manhattan, you can enjoy the major sites and shopping districts without killing your feet or buying a transportation pass. (Unless you decide to wear brand new boots like I foolishly did.)

We traversed much of the arts and theatre district around South and Walnut streets. We caught a look at city hall, Rittenhaus Square, and made our way over to China Town. Center City has plenty to enjoy besides the Liberty Bell. We put about five miles on our shoes and a new blister on my left heel.

 

Finally: dinner and bubble tea in China Town

Dim Sum Garden, 1020 Race St, Philadelphia

Tea Do, 132 N 10th St, Philadelphia

I wish I had taken more photos during dinner because it was amazing. Though, possibly, the fact that I could not bothered to take a break and photograph anything might be the greater testament to the quality of the meal. I only managed to snap one photo through the whole meal. It was of the last dish of the evening, a Pork Moon Cake.

F57EB94C-E807-4339-96B1-C4438A4C90C6 We had about four courses of dim sum and a few plates of noodles shared among the group. It worked out to about $25 a person which is very reasonable for the amount of dumplings we put away. The variety of authentic dishes has something for every enthusiast of Hong Kong style cuisine. However, keep in mind that like many small businesses in Philadelphia, they are cash only.

For dessert, we went around the block to Tea Do, a bubble tea shop that also has a variety of snacks on the menu. We were all very contented with our bellies full of dim sum and stuck to tea. What struck me first about this shop is that they are very similar to my favorite Taiwanese (now international) chain: Gong Cha. Like Gong Cha, they have dozens of teas to choose from; green, black,  fruit, milk. Plus they have more than just the usual black tapioca pearls to choose from as toppings. They have the classic pearls along with fruit flavored pooping boba, fruit jelly, and aloe. You can also adjust how much sugar and ice you want in your drink.

We finished our night roaming back to the Hamburg Squad’s temporary residence, cups of tea in our hands.

Philadelphia is an approachable city full of cool sites and a variety of ethnic foods and cultural features. Even if US history and cheesesteaks aren’t your thing, don’t write Philly off. It made the perfect day trip for us and we’re eager to go back and enjoy more of the character of the city soon.

 

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Revelations while living in America

It has been a year of changes. In March we moved back to the US and have spent most of the year camped in Pennsylvania by my family. Just recently we began the transition to upstate New York. Two moves in one year, one out of country, one out of state. We’re definitely psychotic.

I’ve back here long enough now to enjoy the full spread of reverse-culture shock and to evaluate how life here in America differs and get a sense of the lifestyle that suits me. I’ve discovered some surprises such as…. I’m a city girl now.

I grew up on a farm and I’ve always loved green spaces and communing with nature. Indeed, that is one of the things that I disliked about Seoul so much: so little green around. Too much glass and concrete. And after living in one of the biggest mega-cities in the world, I realize that’s not for me. However, coming back to America and living in literally, the middle of nowhere, a tiny village five miles from town, I know that I prefer a city.

I know that I sound like a contrarian who can’t be happy anywhere. I don’t want to live in a city like Seoul, but I’m not happy to be living across from a corn field in Pennsylvania. Fortunately, in my travels, I’ve discovered that while the world is full of extreme contrasts such as these, there are also places that are in between.

The benefits of a city are undeniable. Particularly when it comes to transportation. I have lost my taste for driving. A commute is way more productive when you can check emails, study, or even just relax with a video or book. You don’t have that luxury when you drive everywhere. As a couple with sometimes conflicting schedules, sharing a car has been really tough. But cars are expensive to purchase, insure, and fuel up, so I’m reluctant to get a second one. Of course, I remember the rush hour trains in Seoul with a shudder. You can’t be productive if you’re standing armpit to armpit with everyone else, letting four trains pass until you can creep forward in the platform queue.

And while I love all the variety of activities in the city, I don’t miss the crowds. Any event in Seoul would have tens of thousands of people crowding to get a look or take a turn. It’s almost as annoying as having only three place to go within a half an hour drive. So I’ve gone from too many people, to too few options. I’m not making my case for not being a contrarian yet, I know. Bear with me.

After being back in America for most of a year, I have come to the conclusion that this might not be where I settle down. There is still a lot of America that I want to explore and my husband and I agreed to give New York state one year as a trial run. And there are surely some American cities that might strike a balance between the two extremes that have driven me a tiny bit crazy. But life in America is surprisingly tough. Rent and utilities are very high, especially on the east coast. Living without a car is impossible if you don’t live in the very heart of one of the top five biggest cities. Healthcare is extremely expensive, and employers like to hire people at just under full time hours so they don’t have to foot the bill for that health insurance. That’s without touching on the overall financial and political instability as well as the violence and racism that keeps a mixed couple like us steering clear of certain regions.

More and more, my mind keeps turning back to 2015 and the month I spent in France. No doubt, France has its issues too. Every country has its issues. But I think as you travel you get a sense of the lifestyle you want to have and the things that are important to you in a place. You figure out what assets are most important and what flaws you can live with. So for me Lyon was the city that has most matched what I’m looking for.

It’s small enough that you can walk from place to place easily, but if you need to go further or are feeling a bit tired, there’s affordable transportation all through the city. It’s got beautiful architecture and affordable apartments. It’s connected by train to many major cities in Europe. There are museums, theatres, shopping areas, gardens– all sorts of activities to enjoy. But it never felt horrendously crowded, and it has much lower crime rates than major US cities, so it never felt unsafe either. It just felt like the place for me. (Though Hamburg was pretty tempting as well.) It offers the opportunity to work in my field again as well, and France seems to promote a better life/work balance than the US or Korea manages to do.

So, I’m giving New York one year. Then we’ll see. But at the end of that year, I might be setting the wheels in motion for France.

What about 2018? I’m not going to hermit myself away. We have plans to visit at least two new countries this year. We’re hopeful for Sweden and Mexico as we have friends in both places that we’re eager to see. And maybe I’ll have to drag my husband to France so he can see what all the fuss is about.

Fall in the USA: Bowman’s Wildflower Preserve, PA

Bucks County Pennsylvania is an odd place. It’s got cute boutique towns, sprawling fields, mountains, hill people, wealthy bourgeoisie; in short, nearly everything. It’s also not far from where I’m currently staying. So when Groupon sent me an email saying that there was a discounted admission to a wildflower preserve in Bucks County, of course I was ready for a day trip.

Perhaps autumn isn’t the best time to visit a wildflower preserve, I admit upon reflection. But it was still really beautiful. The grounds have a variety of trails that highlight different plant varieties and even specific areas for birds to nest. The trails vary in their intensity, most being a pleasant walk. The most vigorous would probably be the fern trail which dips along the creek and is quite rocky and variable.

Here are some things that are good to know before you plan your visit: no dogs are allowed in the preserve to protect the plants. All of the plants in the preserve are native species which are protected to help preserve the local biome. You can also purchase seeds or plants to grow in your own back yard. The preserve also has facilities on site and hosts a variety of events such as weddings.

Autumn is my favorite season here in the north-east USA, so I hope to hit a few more spots before the snow takes over.

My Korean Wedding

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Goodness my arm looks pale

So, some of you who read my posts might know that I got married last year.In fact, it’s nearly our first anniversary! We’re enjoying married life, but planning a wedding in Korea was one of the most stressful periods in my life. I’ve done a post before on Korean style weddings here, but that style of nuptials (conveyor belt weddings as I call them) doesn’t really suit my style.

My husband is half Korean, but didn’t grow up there, so he wanted a western style wedding as well. Korean weddings tend to be quite impersonal and rushed. American weddings tend to be over the top. So we decided to go with a more French mindset. No bridal party. 50 or fewer guests. As little fuss as possible. Fun, tasteful, simple.

But, as anyone planning a wedding knows, there’s always a bit of fuss. There was a culture clash with my in-laws. We had to change our intended venue three months before. Our photographer canceled a week before. The friend making our cake had a kitchen disaster two days before. Because of Korean work culture, I had about two days off for our honeymoon. It certainly didn’t go as I envisioned, but, a lot of things did go right. So here’s my advice for people who want a non-Korean wedding in Korea or for inquiring minds who want to know how we pulled it off.

Talented Friends: We were really lucky to be able to call on many of the lovely and talented friends we know in Korea. One friend did our engagement photos. One was our DJ. One helped me translate and negotiate with our venue. One made my bouquet, knit me a bolero, and did my hair and makeup on the day. We basically had an international team help us. America, New Zealand, Korea, Canada, France, Argentina. If you don’t have friends who can do the job, look for a wedding planner who is willing to do a more unique ceremony.

Sign your papers in advance: if one or both of you is not a Korean citizen, you’ll need to visit the embassy of the country to get permission to marry in Korea. The you’ll need to register at the local Korean office. At that point, you’re legally married and that’s really the most important bit. You might want to get a physical copy of your registration to take with you if you ever go back to your native country.

Find a place: This proved to be very challenging. You want an out door space, so a park is probably your best bet. Yangjae Citizen’s Park actually has a free outdoor wedding venue. However, you have to book it about a year in advance. Most botanical gardens and parks will express extreme confusion if you call them and ask if they have a wedding or party space. Some people I know have opted to head out to the coast and do a small ceremony on the beach. If you are a member of a church, sometimes you can have religious service there and have a reception in a restaurant afterwards.

We used the website Spacecloud to find our venue. It’s sort of like an air bnb for space rental. Conference rooms, dance studios, etc. We found a gorgeous place called “Slow Dream.” By day it’s a photography studio. On weekends and evenings, they rent it out at a reasonable price for events. The staff was kind and helpful and I can’t recommend it enough.

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Slow Dream before it got all wedding-ed up

Spiffy Threads: I’d heard horror stories of brides over a size six getting turned away from Korean bridal shops. I also didn’t fancy looking like a dollop of meringue, and those poofy princess style gowns are quite popular in Korea. So, to look a bit more like I wanted and to and save money, I ordered my dress from ModCloth‘s bridal line. I ordered a petticoat from Etsy to add a bit of flare and had a little custom tailoring done.

My husband got a custom suit made at Mercury Tailor in Itaewon. The price was reasonable, it was finished in a week, and the fit is great. We thought it was better to invest in a well made suit (since he needed a new one anyway) instead of renting a tux.

Food: Typically at Korean weddings, everyone gives a monetary gift, usually around $50 USD. Instead of asking for money, we asked for food. To save ourselves from paying for catering (which would have been hard to arrange for a reasonable per person price since we had only about 40 guests), we had a potluck style affair. We asked everyone to RSVP (unheard of for weddings in Korea) and let us know what they would bring so we could prevent everyone bringing the same things.

We have a friend who is a trained patisserie who volunteered to make our cake as a wedding present. However, due to the limitation of Korean kitchens, her attempts to make fine pastry in a toaster oven was a disaster. So the night before the wedding, she gritted her teeth and bought two cakes from Paris Baguette which she stacked together and redecorated. Not what we planned, but serviceable.

Decorations: Slow Dream was such a beautiful space, we hardly needed to add anything to it. I made some paper flowers and we hung some string lights. Diaso has some basic crafting supplies, but for more refined art supplies, I went to the Hottracks in the basement of Kyobo tower by Nonhyeon station, Gangnam. Modern House has some cute string lights and silk flowers in many varieties and shapes that were also used.

Overall, our wedding was a success. We managed to keep everything together and all our guests had a nice time. Our wedding had a cozy, intimate feeling and that’s what we wanted. An older Korean guest told me that our wedding was the most touching he had ever attended. That it was the first time he had appreciated sitting down and listening to the proceedings a mingling with the guests and the couple. t’s not a chance you get at most Korean weddings. We even got people to dance at our wedding which is pretty revolutionary for Korea.

If I’m completely honest though, are some things I regret about my wedding planning process. I wish that my mother-in-law hadn’t clashed with me so much. I wish that more people from the US could have attended (my best friend wasn’t even able to come). I wish that I could have enjoyed the bit of pampering brides at US weddings enjoy with bridal showers and bachelorette nights. I wish I hadn’t been so stressed out that I grew my first two grey hairs in the months leading up the event.

There were so many times when I felt alone and overwhelmed. I’m definitely jealous of brides who have very close friends and family members who swoop in and alleviate some of the burden. I owe so much to my former roommate who came back from New Zealand to help me bring everything together a few months before our wedding. Without her we probably would have eloped. The groom was, of course, a big help too. He was always there to listen when I needed someone to cry to, even if it was about his own mother. He  built a wedding website which served as our invitations complete with RSVP forms which was a big help and money saver.

Even though it wasn’t the ideal situation, few things in life are. If we spend our lives waiting for circumstances to be perfect, we’ll never do anything. In the end, what’s most important is that we survived such a stressful situation as a couple and came out stronger. It’s the marriage that follows which is important, not how much money you do or don’t spend on a wedding or if you had the silk roses or silk ranunculus in your hair.

Tips for Enjoying your Niagara Falls Trip

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View from the observation deck at Journey Behind the Falls

Niagara Falls is one of the most visited tourist destinations in the world. It’s like the Eiffel Tower, a grand monument that brings people from all over the world clambering for a closer look. As a major tourist destination, it’s easy to get wrapped up in over paying for things and miss out on some hidden gems.

So here are are couple points to consider when planning your trip to Niagara Falls

Don’t stay at the major hotels in the tourist district. Yes, there are some benefits to staying in the tourist area. Lots of things to see and do are walking distance. There are convenient bus stops. But that’s about it. Unless you’re really set on spending your days at the casino or need to be two doors down from Ripley’s Believe It or Not, there’s no reason to spend on a big hotel.

Just a short way away from the main strip is the residential area. Along the river there are dozens of charming b&bs. There are bus stops, super markets, and downtown restaurants within walking distance or a short drive away. B&Bs are typically cozier and much more cost effective. Even looking at deals on Groupon, the b&b we stayed in was about 1/3 the price of the large hotels even after a discount.

Try the local restaurants and super markets. Instead of hitting up Subway and Starbucks try some of the local favorites. Our b&b host had a list of recommendations and we also enjoyed wandering around Queen Street to see what looked good to us.

Our favorites on this trip were Paris Crepes Cafe  on Queen Street and Frijoles  on Portage Road. We did, of course have to try some poutine as well and made our one food stop in the more touristy district to do so at Smoke’s Poutinerie.

Visiting the local supermarkets is also a great way to save money on meals (most have some prepared food to grab for a quick lunch or dinner) and to see local culture. I love visiting supermarkets when I travel and finding all the surprising little differences. Local liquor stores are also a treasure trove. The local stores are a great place to get souvenirs too. Pure maple syrup at the tourist souvenir shop is easily twice the price you’ll find it at the super market. Local sweets and wines are also much cheaper where the locals shop for groceries.

Buy the Adventure Pass. Learn from our mistakes. We didn’t buy the pass and regretted it. If you want to spend a couple of days taking advantage of all the cool things Niagara has to offer, you might want to invest in The Adventure Pass. There are a couple different options, but each pass gives you discount admission to various activities and sights in Niagara and Niagara on the Lake. The pass also gives you a two day bus pass which will take you almost anywhere you want to go and save you money on parking.  Some areas near the Falls charge as much as $20 CAD for parking. Even free attractions will usually have a price on their parking. And certain attractions like the ubiquitous Maid of the Mist boat ride cost about $90 per person before the discount.

Enjoy the views and take your time. The Falls are a natural wonder. And the Niagara region overall has a lot to offer. If possible, spend a couple days to slowly enjoy and see the Falls from different angles and perspectives. This is also one of the few places where I would advise giving the museums a skip, or at least not spending too much time on them. Go out and enjoy the beauty of nature instead of simply reading about it. Journey Behind the Falls provides a bit of historical context if you read the placards on the wall along your walk through the tunnels. But if you really can’t help yourself, the Niagara Falls Museum has free admission on Thursdays.

We did a lot of research before our trip to find what there was in the area to suit our interest and we still ended up missing a few things. I guess we’ll just have to go back. Hopefully though, this will help you plan for your own trip to Niagara Falls.

Gardens and Wine in Niagara on the Lake

Niagara, Ontario is home to one of the most iconic natural monuments in the world. Millions of tourists flock there to get a look at the three waterfalls that make up the “Falls.” Around the falls are plenty of touristy attractions. Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, Niagara Casino, big hotels, gift shops, and chain restaurants. There certainly are plenty of things to do after you’ve had your fill of the falls, but if Casinos aren’t your style, Niagara on the Lake might be.

Just north of the falls, bordering Lake Ontario, is Niagara on the Lake. The quieter, less built up area is a short drive or bus ride away. On our trip, we dedicated one day to this part of Niagara. It has plenty to offer when it comes to nature and wine.

The Botanical Garden and School of Horticulture + Butterfly Conservatory:

The Niagara Botanical Gardens and School of Horticulture is free and open to the public. The whole garden is 100 acres, so you can ramble around for as long or as short as you like. There is also rest area with bathroom facilities and food.

The gardens have some areas which are highly polished and manicured, such as their European style rose garden with a large fountain at the center. But other areas are left a bit more wild. Plenty of happy bees were enjoying the abundance of the garden on the summer afternoon we visited. The garden is not only for visitors, but is part of the School of Horticulture as well. Some of the beds will actually be student projects. The lovely herb garden features plenty of tags indicating student work, as well as an olive tree (ambitious in the climate) and many varieties of culinary and medicinal herbs.

While studying the tags in the herb garden, I ran into one of the grounds keepers. She explained to me that while certain plants will never reach their full potential in the Canadian climate, such as that olive tree, the garden’s goal is to educate. They enjoy showing people plants they have never seen before. The students grow vegetables in dedicated beds, so it’s a practical garden as well as an attractive one.

On the grounds, under a large glass dome, is the Butterfly Conservatory. Exotic butterflies from around the world enjoy a home there. On this trip, we decided to pass on the Conservatory, but it’s definitely something worth visiting with children. It’s a chance to teach them how to handle a butterfly gently (never touch the wings!) and it can be a great photo-op since the butterflies are a bit used to being handled and tend to land on visitors. There are tons of photos and videos online showing people enjoying the company of butterflies.

The Butterfly Conservatory and parking at the gardens is not free, though admission to the garden itself is. The Butterfly Conservatory is $15 CAD and parking is $5 CAD.

Inniskillin and the Niagara Wine Trail

Inniskillin is known as a pioneer in modern Canadian wine making. By grafting European vines onto North American roots, they grow fine quality wine grapes that are resistant to local pests. The vineyard was one of the first in the region and it opened in 1974. In 1991 they gained fame by winning first place at Vinexpo in the dessert wine category. They won with their now famous ice wine. One of the first major producers of ice wine in Canada, they set a trend in the area and now the Niagara region is famous for it even though the original concept came from the German tradition of Eiswein.

At Inniskillin you can have a brief tour and tasting for $10 CAD. On this tour you visit some of the vines and peek in the production rooms. There’s a video that explains the unique way ice wine is produced, and a tour of the cellar where they age both ice wines and table wines. The tour ends with a tasting of two table wines and two ice wines. Your tour ticket also serves as a coupon in their wine shop for $10 off your wine purchase.

I personally love learning about how things are made, so the tour was very interesting to me. The tasting was what we were all waiting for though. After trying a white and a red table wine, they serve you a still and then a sparkling Vidal ice wine. Ice wine is very sweet and usually a white wine, though it’s available in red varieties too. Some varieties have a syrupy, honey-like taste and consistency. A this tasting I was able to finally find a wine my husband will drink, so it was an especially successful day for me. If you want to taste more of the wines available at Inniskillin than the tour offers, the wine shop also has tasting sets of table and ice wines.

Because of Niagara on the Lake is set between the falls and Lake Ontario, the area has what’s called a micro-climate that makes it one of the best regions in Canada for wine growing. The micro-climate makes the region more temperate overall, and the soil has a high level of clay which reduces the need to water the vines. There are 25 vineyards in Niagara on the Lake, so if you’re very interested in wines and vineyards, you can take a trip down the Wine Trail. Check out their site for events and maps.

There’s a lot to do in Niagara beyond visiting the Falls. Personally, I think I need to spend a weekend just doing that Wine Trail. Niagara on the Lake is definitely worth putting on the schedule for your trip to Niagara, Ontario.

I’m off to Canada….

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I’ll be right about… there.

It’s getting really hot here. Humid, sticky, gross. While most people will be heading south during the Fourth of July holiday (everyone wants to be in Florida for some reason), I’ll be giving the equator a wide berth. I’m fleeing to Canada. The land of Tim Horton’s, moose, maple syrup, and other various stereotypes.

When I searched “Canada” earlier through the great and powerful Google, the first news story to come up was from the New York Times, “Canada Doesn’t Know How to Party“. So it sounds like a very me place. It’s actually an interesting story about national identity and culture, worth a read if you want to know more about Canada.

My only experience of this country that shares a continent with the place of my birth has been the Vancouver airport. That was pretty nice. So I’m excited to finally be on true Canadian soil. This will be my first border crossing by car as well. It will be my first on the ground passport check too. I’ve only ever been through border control in airports. Traveling by train through Europe is a smooth and check-less process.

So, I’ll have some new material for the blog, which is good news. I’m also going to post some more Korea based things coming soon. I’ve been going through my back logs of photos and looking for things that I’ve never really discussed on the blog. I haven’t talked much about some of the cool places I’ve been like Versaille in France, Jeonju and Nami Island in Korea, Hong Kong, Kyoto. I’d love to do some pic spamming and pool some resources for people who are interested in making similar trips (How to book a tea ceremony in Kyoto and things to do along the Hamburg waterfront, for example.)

I promise to try and keep things interesting until my next international trip. If you guys will bear with me through my boring American days I hope I can still manage to entertain you. There are still plenty of adventures to have and delve deeper into.

I’d also like to keep the invitation open for discourse on my blog. If there is anything about Korea, travel in general, teaching abroad, or any other locations I’ve traveled to that you’d like to know more about, please put it in the comments. I’m writing about what I find interesting or has effected me personally. But I’d like to know what you find interesting. Do you want to know about teaching in Korean Hagwons? Staying with a host family you can barely communicate with? Packing light? Travel resources? Getting married in Korea? I don’t know, but I’d love it if you gave me a hint.

Oh, and a quick note: we booked our room for this trip+through airbnb. When you do that, they send you a code to offer to other first time users. It will give you $40 dollars off your first booking through them, and for the sake of transparency, it will give me $20 of credit as well. I really like airbnb (and pretty much all hotel/motel alternatives) and I thought some of you might be interested in this code. It’s a mutually beneficial situation, so here’s the link.